Exclusive: How an Israeli risked his life in Syria and got a government minister fired

British-Israeli journalist Jonathan Spyer secretly joined a government-led tour in Syria that resulted in the firing of its information minister.

By Aryeh Savir and Steve Leibowitz

Syrian President Bashar Assad recently fired Information Minister Mohammed Ramez Tourjman for allowing a Jewish Israeli journalist to enter the country, Al-Arabiya news reported Tuesday.

The journalist, Dr. Jonathan Spyer, confirmed to World Israel News that he had met twice with Tourjman while taking part in a Syria government-run propaganda group funded by the Syrian government.

“I joined a delegation in April 2017 of activists and journalists. I went along because although I had reported extensively from Syria, I had not been to areas of the country controlled by the Assad regime. The delegation was organized by the Syrian Information Ministry, and the minister at the time, Mohammed Tourjman, spoke to us on two occasions. After I left the country I wrote several articles for the Western media. It took until now for the scandal to erupt involving my participation, and as a result the minister was fired,” Spyer said.

According to Al Arabiya, Tourjman insisted he had no idea that Spyer was Israeli, saying he had entered Syria on a British passport. However, officials ridiculed that explanation, saying that a quick internet search would have revealed Spyer’s background.

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Spyer told WIN, “In retrospect I realize that I was in danger but that’s the nature of reporting from a war zone. I was in danger of a different kind when I was in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria fighting Islamic State terrorists. This is what journalists must do and I like doing it. I know that I cannot return now to areas of Syria controlled by the Assad regime. I do intend to go back to other areas of Syria as long as that is possible.”

Syrian authorities’ ‘gross incompetence’

Spyer told Times of Israel in November that the fact that his Israeli identity was not uncovered at any point was due to “gross incompetence” on the part of the Syrian authorities. Spyer has been to Syria eight or nine times and Iraq five or six times in recent years, generally for around two-week periods.

Speaking about the current status of the Syrian civil war, Spyer told WIN, “The war is definitely winding down. But having said that, in my view the government is not in control of more than 60 percent of the land that’s home to about 70 percent of the population. The Kurds and rebel groups still control the rest. It’s clear that Assad now cannot be brought down by the rebel forces, and he is trying to reach his goal of reconquering areas still held by the rebels.”

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Spyer is director of the Rubin Center (formerly the GLORIA Center), IDC Herzliya, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (Routledge, 2017) and The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010). Originally from the UK, he has lived in Jerusalem, Israel, since 1991. His research focuses on the Levant, and he has covered events in Syria extensively over the past decade.